After three scenes where Israel is found complaining against the Lord regarding their food and water situation, another test arises for the people who are in the wilderness on their way to Canaan. Exodus 17:8 simply states, “Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” But what happens is far worse than the Exodus account reveals to us. Moses recalls what Amalek did when he gives his final sermon to the people. Listen to what he says about what happened:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. (Deuteronomy 25:17–18 ESV)
Attacked At Rephidim (17:8-16)
What did not happen was that Israel encountered Amalek and a fair fight happened between the two. Rather, Israel is ambushed. They are traveling to the promised land of Canaan. When they came to Rephidim, the Amalekites attacked this large group of people by attacking the slower, weaker, and stragglers who were at the back of the group. The people were weak, tired, and faint and so Amalek attacks them. It is an unprovoked attack. With the people under attack from the Amalekites, Moses tells Joshua to get some men to go fight with Amalek. But notice they are not going to battle alone. Listen to what else Moses says in verse 9. “Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”
The staff of God has been an important instrument in the life of Israel up to the point. This is the staff by which God said that Moses would perform signs before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:2-4,17) This is the staff that Moses cast down before the magicians of Egypt and it turned into a snake (Exodus 7:9-15). This is the staff that struck the water of the Nile and turned the water to blood (Exodus 7:19-20). This is the staff that was stretched over the rivers to cause frogs to come upon the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:5). This is the staff that was stretched over the earth causing gnats to swarm the land of Egypt (Exodus 8:16). This is the staff that was stretched toward heaven and brought down thunder, hail, and fire to the earth (Exodus 9:23). This is the staff that was stretched over Egypt so that locusts covered the land (Exodus 10:13). This is the staff that was stretched over the sea, parting the waters so that Israel walked through on dry ground (Exodus 14:16). This is the staff that Moses used to strike the rock, bringing water out of the rock to thirsty Israel in the desert (Exodus 17:5-6). What I want you to see that it is no small thing for Moses to say that he will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in his hand. God has been providing for the people through the staff that Moses carries.
Joshua is a military leader and he gathers his men to go to war with Amalek. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. But whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. Now you can imagine how tiring it would be to hold the staff of God in your hand over head for hours as this battle rages. Moses’ hands were tired, so Aaron and Hur put a stone down where Moses could sit on it and they held up his hands. Thus, Moses’ hands were steady and Joshua overwhelmed Amalek.
Now there are some strange explanations that are given about this text. One of the more popular answers is that when the people of Israel saw the staff of God raised, they were more courageous and fought more aggressively against Amalek. But when Moses’ hands lowered, then they were demoralized by not seeing the staff and thus would begin to lose the battle. Is this the message that God is trying to communicate? This does not appear to be the message of the text. In fact, notice the text does not say anything about the people seeing the staff of God raised or lowered. This is not God’s message.
Some have indicated that hands stretched over your head was a symbol of prayer. So when Moses’ hands were raised up to heaven, Moses was praying and God was giving the victory. But when Moses’ hands were lowered, then he was not praying and God was no longer giving Israel victory. But this again is not what the text says. Please consider that these common explanations put the power of victory in our hands. If we would just pray, then we would win. If we would just see the power of God outstretched, then we would have courage to win. The power of the victory is placed on our might. But this is never the message God wants to communicate to Israel or to us.
The Battle Belongs To The Lord
Rather, God’s message is very simple. You cannot be victorious without God. This was the Lord’s battle! You are not winning because Joshua is a great military general. You are not winning because you have a great military army or strategy. The staff represents the power of God. You are winning because God is with you. You are winning because God gives the victory. As long as God’s blessing and power were extended to them, the Israelites prevailed. It is not about us. It is always about God and what he accomplishes for us. God brings victory to the people through Moses.
Further, because of what Amalek did, God makes a promise to utterly blot out the memory of Amalek on earth. How many Amalekites do you know? We see a declaration here that is part of the thread of Scripture: your enemies are God’s enemies. Because Amalek attacked God’s people, God will bring justice and blot out their names from under heaven.
Leadership Crisis (18:1-27)
Chapter 18 is a curious historical event that is recorded for us. There is a reason it is placed in scripture for us by God. So we will look at the account and consider its message. In the first twelve verses of Exodus 18 we read about the reunion of Moses to his wife and children. We did not know it from reading Exodus up to this point, but Moses left his wife and children in Midian with Jethro while he went to Egypt to set the people of Israel free. Notice what God’s victory has accomplished in the heart of Jethro, a Midianite.
8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. 9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people.” (Exodus 18:8–11 ESV)
Jethro rejoices over the victory the Lord provided and confesses that the Lord is greater than all other gods. This has been the purpose of the plagues. People would see it, hear it, and know that the Lord is the true God, greater than all other supposed deities. Pharaoh had to learn this, Israel had to learn this, and the world needed to learn this. Through this exodus, Gentiles are becoming worshipers of the true God.
The rest of Exodus 18 records how Moses was settling disputes for the people all day long. Think about the number of people in Israel and all of them would come to Moses to decide cases, issues, and disputes. Jethro sees this and tells Moses that what he is doing is not good (18:17) because it is going to wear Moses out. It was too much for Moses to bear (18:18). What Jethro says Moses must do is be the teacher of the covenant to the people and let other trusted people do the rest (18:19-22). God uses Jethro to tell Moses what he must do as he leads the people and Moses does what Jethro says.
This is an important message because one person is not supposed to do the work alone. Too often expectations are placed upon one person to handle all of the load or to do all of the work. But God in his wisdom shows that this is not how it is supposed to be. When Jesus came, he selected twelve apostles to work with him and carry on the work after he left. When there was a dispute in Acts 6 regarding the distribution of food to the widows, the apostles do not take the work upon themselves, but delegate work to faithful men who would oversee this work so that the apostles could continue to devote themselves to the word of God and prayer. We see in the book of Acts as well as the commands of Paul in Titus and 1 Timothy that the church is to have shepherds and deacons so that the work does not fall on one person. This is the wisdom of God on display even in the structure of the local church.
So how do we see Jesus and the picture of our redemption through these events in Israel’s salvation history? The big message is that God provides for your needs. God will take care of what you need. It is closely related to Exodus 15-17 where we see God providing for Israel’s physical needs. Now we see God providing for the rest of the people’s needs. The people need God to fight for them and we see God fight for his people and be victorious through Moses. God brings victory to the people through Moses.
This is exactly what God does through Jesus for us. We are made to be conquerers and victors because of what God accomplished in Christ. We have hope because we have the new Moses (Jesus) who displayed the mighty power of God through his death and resurrection, conquering our greatest enemy: the power of sin and death. Jesus crushed Satan under his feet and through him we also crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20). When we read in the New Testament about God supplying our needs through Jesus, we must not forget what our greatest need is. We need rescue from sin. We need mercy and forgiveness. We need God to win the battle against Satan, sin, and death and he did. It was not our power but God’s power alone.
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 ESV)
Whatever our need is, God is telling us that we can trust him to provide what we need. We have every reason to trust God. How often in our lives do we think that the answer to our problems is in some person or possession? We think that career, family, friends, parents, children, geography, or something else will be what we need for life and joy. God is telling us to look to him. God has exerted his power through Jesus and we need to look to him for everything in life. There is nothing beneath our Lord that are not to turn to him for. God is the help we need. Trust him in any circumstance you face.